‘Bolero Juilliard’: Inside the Making of a Lockdown Musical Miracle
Christine Baranski, Bebe Neuwirth, Jon Batiste, and the makers of “Bolero Juilliard” tell Tim Teeman how 100 performers made this mini-epic while in lockdown all over the world.
Bebe Neuwirth dances in her kitchen. A young woman buries herself in a sofa. Christine Baranski opens her arms wide. A musician almost trips over a dog. Patti LuPone blots her lipstick. A dancer launches herself into the air beneath a tree heavy with blossom. Laura Linney brushes her teeth. Heads rest in hands in apparent despair, and are later joyously bathed in sunshine. The musicians Jon Batiste and Yo-Yo Ma duet.
The screen splits into Zoom collections of classical and jazz musicians playing instruments, dancers in their living rooms whirling around upended furniture, and actor Bradley Whitford on his sofa tapping at his cellphone, dog nestled in lap.
The short film, Bolero Juilliard, may be only just shy of ten minutes, but it’s a mighty and striking work. It features Ravel’s famous piece of music—which premiered in 1928—reinterpreted by current students from the famed performing arts school’s music, dance, and drama divisions, alongside famous alumni.
Filmed via cellphones in lockdown, and then scored, directed and edited seamlessly, it re-crafts the originally purely orchestral Boléro into a piece of contemporary musical theater. A dramatized, collective diary of a day living under the pandemic, it is also a witty, moving celebration of art as a life force.
You can watch the performance below.
The work was imagined by Juilliard President Damian Woetzel, and created under the artistic leadership of choreographer and director Larry Keigwin. Featuring 100 performers, it is made up of more than 500 video clips, and over 150 audio tracks were edited and synchronized to create the soundtrack.
In addition to living across the U.S., current Juilliard students filmed their participation from Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Japan, Mexico, Israel, and Russia. The video’s music was overseen by David Robertson, Juilliard’s director of conducting studies, and Kurt Crowley, the music director of Hamilton on Broadway.
Keigwin told The Daily Beast that getting Bolero Juilliard right “turned into an obsession that was comforting on so many levels. And we just hit it full speed for days and days. Not every project do you wake up at 3am for and have lots of ideas, or start editing at 6am. It was so inspiring and passion-filled. And it really wasn’t just me, this was a hugely collaborative effort.”
He laughed as he described shouting at the multiple performers on the screen in front of him: “Follow my lead…faster…grab something…stop…MELT.” People would be moving furniture, breaking things, an animal would enter the shot, leading Keigwin to exclaim: “No, keep the cat! I love the cat!”
He said, “I always liked when mistakes become opportunities in disguise, and here there were lots of fabulous mistakes.”
Keigwin found the celebrities especially disarming, “especially as they were opening up their homes for everyone to see.” He told LuPone—a fellow Long Islander—that he recalled his mother blotting her lipstick, and would she do the same. He videoed himself walking through a door and sent it to Neuwirth with the text message, “Don’t be like me, don’t be so gay. Do it sassy.” She replied, he recalled: “Don’t worry honey, ‘sassy’ is my middle name.”
Woetzel told The Daily Beast that the challenge was to come up with a concept that people could execute together, but apart. Keigwin has, since 2007, made Boléro into a community project wherever his company of performers travels to. He has overseen 14 very different productions of Ravel’s piece in locations as different as Silicon Valley, Akron, Ohio, and New York City.
The idea germinated to do the same with Juilliard’s community—though virtually. It has taken just over four and a half weeks to execute. Two days after Woetzel’s initial phone call to Keigwin, rehearsals via Zoom were underway. Robertson told Woetzel they could create a new score folding in elements of Beethoven, Chopin, and jazz, which had been a big influence on Ravel.
“The project got wider and wider as we went along,” said Woetzel. The intention was to evoke a sense of what a wide swathe of humanity might be emotionally experiencing at this moment, as well as connecting Juilliard’s many generations in a determined mission to continue to create art. Zoom rehearsals included up to 50 performers at any one time.
Batiste, the musical director of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, is the first person we see in the video, play-acting the conception of the piece with a few lush piano chords. His music and presence is peppered throughout.
“Anything with Juilliard brings back great memories for me,” Batiste told The Daily Beast. He spent eight years there, doing two degrees and touring the world in between with his band Stay Human. “I still collaborate with some of the best artists from there (like Tiler Peck, principal dancer with New York City Ballet). Some of the best artists in the world went through those halls. We have a shared fellowship.”
Batiste said the most important thing about Juilliard was “community.” As well as Peck, his bandmates are either Juilliard contemporaries of Batiste’s, or more recent graduates.
The Tony Award-winning Christine Baranski’s segments in the Bolero Juilliard video—just like her part in her Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday “Ladies Who Lunch” number (with Meryl Streep and Audra McDonald)—was shot at her Connecticut lakeside home.
She is quarantining there with one of her daughters, and two grandsons (and her other daughter nearby). “It’s very much en famille,” she told The Daily Beast. “I’m very lucky to be surrounded by so much life. It’s hard to fall into a depression when surrounded by such beautiful little boys.”
For Baranski, both Bolero Juilliard and Sondheim’s 90th celebration “will be an extraordinary record of artists coming together, and the only way we could come together was online via our computers and cellphones.”
Baranski is a huge fan of Woetzel’s, and Juilliard remains “very dear to my heart.” She almost got a full scholarship when she attended. “I was a girl from Buffalo with a working mom and a dad who had lost her dad when she was 8. I had read about Juilliard in a Buffalo Evening News article, and I put that article on my bedroom wall and thought, ‘That’s where I want to go.’”
She was wait-listed, then finally got in. She took her training “very seriously,” but didn’t attend graduation as she had already scored her first roles through her acting teacher Michael Kahn, who was also artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company.
“I attribute the length and variety of my career to my Juilliard training. We were always doing plays and different styles of plays—Shakespeare, then a modern play, then Shaw, Chekhov, Tennessee Williams. We were skipping around, and having to figure out how to enter the world of a specific playwright.”
When she was successful enough, Baranski paid back her tuition in the hope another student could benefit as she had from an almost-full scholarship. “Juilliard isn’t about who is just studying there now. It has trained artists for decades and decades.”
The Tony- and Emmy-award winning Bebe Neuwirth told The Daily Beast that she had only attended Juilliard as a dance student for a year, “so I’m not technically an alumna.” Woetzel assured her that didn’t matter, “so I was very happy to represent and dance. Or in my case wiggle a little bit.”
Neuwirth, perhaps best-known for her role as Lilith in Cheers and Frasier, has been a dancer all her life. She attended Juilliard at 17, straight from high school. Within a year she was on the road with A Chorus Line. “I have been dancing in musical theater ever since I left Juilliard. Dance is what I am and what has always been at core of everything. If I’m singing in a concert or if I’m acting in a television show or movie or something, it’s a dancer doing that. I always say to people, ‘Just because I’m not dancing doesn’t mean I’m not dancing.’ That’s the animal.”
Neuwirth thinks Bolero Juilliard is especially beautiful, given the context of the “challenging” time we are living in.
“I think we’re all struggling to try and frame this time or find some way to describe it. We all respond in very different ways and very similar ways, and I think over the course of a day, week or month go through different phases. Sometimes I get quite introverted, sometimes I reach out. As an artist you go inside yourself. Sometimes you want to make art, sometimes you don’t. This video feels like a gesture of community by artists. What is expressed in it is all of that: artists going inward and artists going toward and through something, explosively.”
In the video, Baranski and others open their arms, and—she noticed—broke through doors, and jumped in the air. Their forward motion was relentless. “You can’t stop artists,” Baranski said.
Standing on her home’s lakeside dock—where Woetzel married his wife Heather Watts—Baranski also replicates in the video the physical movement she has long done on TV and theater stages before performing. She describes it as an opening up of her entire body from her forehead to her arms, mouth, belly, and pelvis—“a giving thanks or prayer movement. It opens up all parts of me as a performer: my mind, throat, heart, sexuality.”
In Bolero Juilliard, she and other performers were asked to raise their hands to their eyes, and then reveal the eyes as if to say, “I am really looking at this. I’m reaching out to you,” Baranski said.
“Delivering a virtual presentation of Ravel brings it in to the 21st century”
The artists in the video both take pleasure in creation, while also expressing frustration at their inability to physically come together to do it. One moment Woetzel loves is when a dancer is doing a step, and her garage door suddenly opens. To him, it feels like the world opening up, which feels a far-off concept still.
Later this month, Juilliard’s Class of 2020 will graduate via a commencement ceremony held virtually. The campus will only be populated again when it is safe to do so, said Woetzel. Watching the finished video reminded him of how he, and many other students, had come to Juilliard to pursue their dreams. “I’m happy that Bolero Juilliard means our students are seen in the world, and their voices are heard.”
“Thinking about collaborating virtually is a new frontier,” said Batiste. “Delivering a virtual presentation of Ravel brings it in to the 21st century.” As Keigwin says at the end of Bolero Juilliard while thanking all the performers, “We’re making magic.”
Zoom made Keigwin think of mosaics; and the screen feels more intricate pattern than administrative boxes. He knows the musical “architecture” of Boléro so well, he can split it down into chapters, and then into its component emotional parts of grief, joy, celebration, and quiet. He particularly liked directing scenes evoking sky, and a pair of male dancers communicating on either side of a pane of glass.
Neuwirth recalled that after 9/11, it was left to artists, writers, and musicians to help make sense of what had occurred—and so it will be again now. For her, Bolero Juilliard is an early example of this. “I’d like to think this video, though made by Juilliard, is not just for the Juilliard community. I hope it’s for everyone. That’s how it feels for me.”
Two TV projects and one Broadway musical workshop were postponed for Neuwirth when the great closedown happened. “I’ve no idea when or how I will get back to them. What we do isn’t like anything you can do in an office or at home. Dancing is a high-contact sport!”
Neuwirth is glad to be in New York City at this moment. “This is a great city. There are other places I could be right now. But this is the most convenient place to be in this kind of distress. New York’s diversity makes it deeper and richer, and I think a healthier place to be. Yes, there are difficulties and flaws, but there is a deep greatness in this city. What will be fascinating is how artists make sense of all this, and find the truth. As Camus said, ‘If the world were clear, art would not exist.’”
The impact of coronavirus will be “staggering” in all areas of our lives, including the arts, said Baranski. The closure of Broadway and other artistic venues affected not just performers, but so many off-stage workers. Work on two of her TV projects, The Gilded Age and The Good Fight, had closed down.
Baranski believes it will take “a year or two of very different living” for people to sit alongside one another in theaters and opera houses. “The normal life of the past feels such a luxury now,” said Baranski. “Just going to a restaurant with friends, a Broadway show, opera, or hockey game. I wrote to Nathan Lane recently, ‘What I wouldn’t give to have dinner at Orso like we used to.’”
The virus is “apolitical,” she said. “We have got to come together as a society. When New York re-congregates for me it’s going to be a love affair. I’m going to plant a big hug on my doorman, and support my local shops—if they survive as I really want them to. What this has shown is how fragile our world was. There will be a heightened sense of gratitude, I think, towards our neighborhoods and all kinds of communities—artistic, and of course the medical community for all they have done for us.”
Like Neuwirth, Baranski is waiting to see what artists make of this era. “It has been weird enough to show the dystopian universe of the Trump presidency in The Good Fight. If and when we come back we will have to acknowledge this huge thing that has just happened.” The other question, she added, was how productions themselves will logistically organize themselves.
Batiste hopes Bolero Juilliard speaks “across generations,” with Ravel’s greatness echoing off the art-forms on display in the video, and vice versa. “Greatness is necessary for us to re-articulate humanity,” he said. “We need to see great pieces of art, music, and film that can transcend the times we live in.”
For artists, this time of quarantine has been variously inspiring and emotionally debilitating, Batiste said. He is filming The Late Show at home, and scoring a new Pixar film, Soul, from his bathroom. This era will not only change the world, he said, but also “art for the rest of time.”
“There’s more to come,” promised Batiste. He is thinking of premiering online a symphony he has been working on with Juilliard for the last two years that was due to premiere at Carnegie Hall. “It still will, but the fact it may go online first is a testament to how much everything has changed. This is a really huge moment for artists.”
“We agreed, ‘Let’s be a little blousy about it, and be in our bath-robes’”
The Bolero Juilliard video is Baranski’s second notable online performance in less than a week, after her headline-making Sondheim number alongside Meryl Streep and Audra McDonald.
“It was a lot of fun wasn’t it?” she laughed of the trio’s universally adored rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch.” “It was a bit of a crapshoot! I always wanted to sing that song. When they asked me if I could participate, I thought, ‘How could I possibly do that song? It’s Patti’s song now.’ Then I had the idea to maybe share it.
“Meryl, Audra, and I took Steve out a year ago for a long, fabulous dinner at an Italian restaurant. We vowed to get together again and do a wonderful dinner for his 90th birthday, and then this virus hit and we weren’t able to take him out on his birthday. The song was a love letter to him, very tongue in cheek, but I’m so glad it worked out, and we all got to sing that song.”
The women did not sing the song together, live. “We each filmed separately in our little niches. We agreed, ‘Let’s be a little blousy about it, and be in our bath-robes so we don’t have to do anything glamorous.’
“We decided how to divvy up the song. I thought if I started, people would think, ‘Obviously Christine is going to sing that song. She plays those kinds of roles.’ Then the surprise would be Meryl appearing on screen with the second stanza, and then Audra with the third. Then we would intercut with us taking different lines and at the end toasting him and moving our glasses into the camera as the final moment.”
The women, said Baranski, were “all flying blind because we were all doing this separately. We weren’t working off of each other. I did not hear them singing. I did not know what they were doing necessarily. The way they cut it really worked in showing our reactions, as we weren’t really reacting to one another. We were reacting to what we thought might be there.”
Baranski laughed as she described the biggest challenge, and “really comical thing” making both the Sondheim and Bolero Juilliard videos: “The presence of three little kids under the age of seven! I had so little space and time to get the quiet to get any of this done,” she said. “It was a real challenge trying to sing a Sondheim showstopper in a back office with grandchildren sleeping in another room. It was difficult to belt out ‘Ladies Who Lunch.’”
This reporter complimented Baranski for her impressive wine glass. “I only have 3 left, the rest are broken,” she said. “These beautiful, long-stemmed ones don’t survive the dishwasher. When I was redoing the takes of ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ I kept refilling it, putting wine back into the bottle, and washing the glass.”
She laughed. “Meryl, Audra, and I were having the pip because it was a great idea, and turned out more complicated than we thought—so I’m happy it turned out OK.”